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Wednesday, January 21, 2009

"I Am Barack Obama"

Scenes from the inauguration: According to the Times (and you gotta love the transcription), when President Bush appeared onstage at the inauguration, some people in the crowd began chanting, "Na na na na, hey hey hey, goodbye." At least no shoes were thrown. God bless America!


Yesterday, Ron Dellums, a former Congressman and the current mayor of Oakland, CA, talked a bit about how proud and excited he was about the inauguration. He also made some points about how he could see in Obama's ascension the fulfillment of an ideal forged in the Bay Area. He talked about how in the early 70's he, a young African-American man, was first elected to Congress by a then-overwhelmingly white district. The point was that--Newsflash!--the Bay Area has always been a bit more progressive than the country as a whole, and that he, Dellums, was pleased to think that this "Northern California attitude" was spreading throughout the country.

All well and good, but there was an off-putting self-congratulatory subtext, almost as though Dellums was taking credit for Obama. It put one in mind of Nike's "I am Tiger Woods" campaign, this identification with a racially transcendent superstar. But, you know what? You're NOT Tiger Woods. No one is! (Well, OK, maybe Tiger Woods.) And Ron Dellums is NOT Barack Obama. Does one need to identify oneself with a figure of greatness in order to appreciate his greatness? How insecure is that? Besides, doing this only perpetuates the elevation--reduction?--of Obama the man to Obama the symbol. The symbolism is there, people, undoubtedly, but we need to move past this. The President has work to do--he knows it. It's enough of a burden to be the President without carrying any more symbolic weight than is unavoidable.

And be careful what you identify with: With all the difficulties the President faces, do you really want to walk around saying you ARE he?

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